Drink up – and follow me into the wormhole of utter pointless reminiscence…


So, in the 1980’s I was working as a “senior engineering technician”, which was US Navy speak for “senior draftsman” or “senior drafter”.  We worked with various UNIX based workstations and mainframe systems to develop 3D models of US naval warship things.  Some of the names back then were CADAM, Pro/Engineer, Intergraph, and CADDS 4 or CADDS 5.

Interesting to note that, while AutoCAD existed in the late 1980’s, the US Navy strictly forbid the use of any “PC-based CAD tools” as they were deemed unreliable, inaccurate, “toys” as one admiral stated.  Over time, they gradually allowed the use of AutoCAD and later, Microstation, DesignCAD, Drafix, and a few others, but only for “textual document data” such as title-sheets (contains only tables, notes, and mostly text), while the actual design data was still allowed only for UNIX-based products.  Sometime in the early 1990’s, the Navy finally gave in and allowed PC-based CAD products for all design work.

While my job title sounded like a typical office job, it wasn’t that typical. We often split our time 50/50 with going aboard ships (all over the place), and climbing into the dirtiest, darkest, hottest, coldest and sometimes most dangerous places, on almost every kind of surface vessel the Navy had at the time.  From small frigates and supply ships, even hydrofoil patrol boats, up to aircraft carriers and commercial cargo ships.

In most cases, the scheduling worked out perfectly to send us to somewhere around 100F at 95% humidity to do this, which works great with a morning-after hangover (I was in my 20’s then).  By the time I left that industry, I had set foot into almost every space on a CVN68 class aircraft carrier, and about half of the spaces on LHA and LHD class ships.  I’ve seen a lot of interesting stuff, and got the bumps and scars to remember it by.

Anyhow, back in the office, one of the popular CAD systems of the time was CADDS 4 or CADDS-4X, sold by the Computervision corporation, which was somewhat affiliated with DEC/Digital.

The workstations we used were priced around $35,000 each at the time.  We had around 20 of them in our office.  The mainframe components, the annual subscription, and the annual support costs, were nearly 4 times the cost of the workstations combined.  Hence the “4X”, ha ha ha!  Good thing I didn’t have the checkbook then.

Turf Battles

One of the cool features was the digitizer tablet and pen setup, which looked like the (linked picture), except we had multi-color monitors.  The tablet consisted of a frame, a paper menu matte, and a clear plastic cover/surface.  The center of the tablet area was for drawing and manipulation.  The left, top and right outer regions were filled with menu “buttons”, which were sort of an on-screen button (no touch screens back then).

The buttons were programmable.  😀

We ran three (3) daily shifts to cover the projects, which were on a tight time schedule.  Myself, Kevin and Timmy, split the shifts on workstation P1, for “Piping Systems Division, Station 1”.  Every month or so, we’d swap shifts to keep from going insane.  During one month, I worked First shift (8am – 4pm), Kevin had Second shift (4pm – midnight) and Timmy had Third shift (midnight to 8am).

We met to discuss logistics, and so on, and agreed that we would claim a particular section of the tablet menu to use for our own custom button macro/command assignments.  First world problems, of course.

Timmy didn’t like being confined.  He considered himself a free-range drafter.

Each night, Timmy would change the button assignments on sections I and Kevin had agreed to claim.  This caused some angst, and I’ll explain why…

Sidebar –

Back then, the combination of hardware (processing power, memory caching, storage I/O performance, and network I/O) resulted in slow work, particularly when it came to opening and saving model data.  A typical “main machinery room” (aka. engine room) space model would take around 35-40 minutes to open.  The regular morning process was as follows:

  • 7:30 AM – Arrive at office
  • 7:35 AM – Log into workstation terminal
  • 7:37 AM – Open model file and initiate a graphics “regen all”
  • 7:39 AM – Search for coffee and sugary stuff
  • 7:45 AM – Discuss latest TV shows, movies, sports game, news story
  • 7:59 AM – Run for nearest restroom
  • 8:19 AM – Emerge from restroom
  • 8:20 AM – Model is generated and ready to begin work
  • 8:21 AM – Make first edit
  • 8:21:05 AM – Save!

Now, here’s the rub:  In 1987-88, there was no concept of an “undo” or “redo” in most of the CAD/CAM systems of the day.  So, we made sure to “save often and be careful with every edit”.

Second Rub:  Timmy liked to modify our programmed menu keys, which caused us a lot of headaches.  For example, clicking a button labeled as “Draw Line” might invoke “Translate Layer X” (select all objects on layer “X” and move them to another layer).  A drastic operation that required exiting the part (no save) and re-opening

Third Rub: Closing a model took about five (5) minutes.   So anytime a mistake occurred that required dropping out and coming back in, meant roughly 45-50 minutes of wasted time.  Well, not totally wasted.  It gave us more time to discuss the latest GNR album, Ozzy, whatever movies were out, and so on, and more coffee, and sugary stuff.

So, after repeated attempts to educate Timmy without success, Kevin and I agreed to modify all of Timmy’s command buttons to “exit part no file”.  So Timmy would open his model file and after 40-45 minutes, click “draw circle” and watch his screen go blank with a prompt showing “part file exited successfully” or something like that.

After one (1) day of that, Timmy didn’t mess with our menu buttons again.

By the way, in one of those 3D models, buried way inside one of the machinery spaces, there just might be a pressure gauge dial, among a cluster of other gauge dials, on an obscure corner bulkhead (ship-speak for “wall”), which has Mickey Mouse’s face and hands on it.  An Easter egg from 1988, laying dormant somewhere in an electronic vault somewhere in a dark warehouse in an undisclosed location.


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